This is a demographic/sociological/ephemeral digression from almost everything this blog has stood for over the past three years or so. It has naught to do with South, or soccer, so it's OK if you decide to skip this entry. If you still haven't dropped off, I warn you also that the following is all very convoluted, but I've tried to break it up into sections.
Preface - State of Confusion
Earlier this year, I took my buddy Gains to his first Australian Rules game, the Queens Birthday clash between Melbourne and Collingwood. It seemed a good choice. No soccer that weekend, big crowd expected (or average crowd by Collingwood standards), but not a terribly hyped game and neither side at that stage really turning it on. It was a pretty rubbish game in the end, though the fact that it was a close game (a draw), gave it a little bit of an edge. Still, the poor lad was utterly confused by what was going on.
Of course, I tried to explain what was happening. That came up a treat when a mass of players dived on a loose ball on the Southern Stand side of the ground, the umpire picked out a free kick (for us I think, and by us I mean the somehow 2010 premiership Pies), and I was only able to explain the decision by remarking that probably no one in the ground, umpire included, knew how he'd arrived at his decision. Enjoyment was certainly diminished by factors such as these. As I've maintained for a long time, it's a game with its own stupid rhythm, and if you ain't born into it, it's a very hard rhythm to become accustomed to.
Yesterday, it was my turn to feel all discombobulated.
My History With Rugby League
Until the recent introduction of One HD, unless you had a subscription television service, as an Australian sports fan you've been reliant on what the free to air networks deem commercially and culturally appropriate for you to see. Which means that, if for example you're a rugby league fan in Victoria, you only get to see midnight replays of NRL games, except for the grand final and possibly one other game during the season, and perhaps some live State of Origin fixtures.
It's not much. So unless you're already dedicated - and in a Melbourne rugby league context, it would be a fair assumption that you're less likely to be a convert as opposed to having been born into an ex-pat rugby league culture of some sort - it can be difficult to understand the culture underpinning the game, the tactics, and even the rules themselves.
Which is not to say that I don't understand the basic rules and the gist of the game. I have picked up something from Channel Nine's (at best) scatter-shot programming of the game into Victorian loungerooms. And I have a bit of an understanding of the history of the game and its development, even internationally. But like many Australian rules following Victorians, I still can't find an 'in' to the game - but unlike a fair few other commentators, I'm interested in trying to find reasons other than Victorian parochialism for why I think this game won't take off here.
So it was in that spirit that I took up an offer of attending my first rugby league match yesterday, which happened to be not a club game, but Australia vs England at Swan Street Stadium. Turns out our tickets were for third row seats at the Yarra end. Not that there's a bad seat in the house in this stadium, but we were close enough to have our eyebrows singed from the half-arsed flame oriented pyro show before the game. But despite the close proximity to the field, it did not make for a good initiation.
Lollies, Chocolates, Donuts and Chips
With kids, the general rule of thumb with them seems to be that you wean them to spectatorship slowly, and mostly with bribery - chips and lollies being the main currency. When attempting to initiate an adult into a new spectator sport, it's a different story. They already have all their preferences and allegiances. And thus the conversion gimmick of choice seems to be, the bigger the game, the higher the quality of the combatants, the more likely one is to succeed in gaining a new follower.
Once I would have followed that same kind of logic, but my thinking on the matter has shifted considerably over the years. If looked at dispassionately, most sporting contests are predictable affairs with mostly predetermined results, even if the methods may vary. It is allegiances to teams and fixations on the end result that blinds us to the massive letdown that these games are from a neutral's entertainment point of view. So if this is the case - and I believe it to be so - why not seek to initiate someone with a lesser fixture, especially as it will be the modus operandi for the rest of their spectator career?
International contests are not the pinnacle of rugby league. England is equivalent to a second tier side in a sport which internationally barely has one tier - the Australians with only New Zealand as a near competitor. And the visitors were fortunate that the Kangaroos were in cruise control for much of this game, otherwise the English would have struggled to score at all. And it rained as well, meaning the game contained several elementary handling errors. And the crowd was flat sounding, with even most of the tries having the celebratory sting taken out of them.
But this I felt, despite the protestations of the league folk I was with, was more true to the nature of the game as it exists week to week. Not every game is a blockbuster, tight contest, or high quality affair. Most aren't, and thus I feel that saw I'd witnessed something authentic, despite, or perhaps rather due to what I perceived to be its pedestrian quality.
Against Modern Everything
There are many things that bother me about modern sport. Right near the top of that list is the desire that the game itself no longer be the centrepiece. It wasn't just the music played after all the tries, drowning out any possible fan reaction, which is not unique to rugby league. And I can deal with the incessant advertising before the game and during the half time break, if only they'd turn the volume down just a little so I don't have to shout to the person next to me in order to be heard. For some reason, they thought it'd be a good idea to have Brian McFadden sing some songs off his new album, and have some woman sing at halftime. Little chance to even start a punch on with the English supporters in the ground.
Which brings me to the English. There were quite a few at the ground and the pubs around town - the most logical explanation being that they were cricket tourists who had arrived early for the upcoming Ashes series. There were flags dotted round here and there, and the odd English rugby league jersey as well, but seldom have I seen such a forlorn bunch of supporters, knowing they would get spanked even before the team got onto the plane. I wish I could say it endeared me to them but the effect of their fatalism was both disheartening and ludicrous.
Degrees of Altitude and Comprehension
Back to the game, it made a little more sense sitting near the top of the stand where the side to side movement was easier to see, but the game is missing something. I'd get rid of the ten metre rule for a start. The game needs more kicking, and for a supposedly territorial game, its rather more about maintaining possession while marching it up the field withing a certain amount of tackles while being given a fair amount of breathing space to do so. They should also get rid of the video referee, let him go with his gut and if it's wrong, it's wrong, and just tally those mistakes as part of the great narrative arc. The big tackles that I was promised also did not eventuate. Not that there wasn't big tackling, but there wasn't that sense of exhilaration that one was meant to feel.
Despite not understanding a great many things about the game, I did manage to have one minor breakthrough. Inevitably when watching a Channel Nine broadcast of the match, Ray 'Rabbits' Warren is the chief commentator. His style of getting excited at seemingly random, innocuous moments of play - innocuous in that the plays Rabbits gets excited about seem identical to each other, at least to a person uneducated in the game such as myself - finally made sense. The way I came to this conclusion was in the random outbursts of excitement from the crowd. Had they seen a gap, a movement, a tackle that I failed to comprehend? Possibly, but I was not able to pick up a particular pattern.
I've struggled since late yesterday (not helped by the Flinders Street Station chip wagon closing moments before I could gorge on deep fried starch and my choice of condiments) to pinpoint the thoughts and find the appropriate words to explain my very 'meh' and perplexed reaction to the game, and further to that, reasons beyond parochialism. I'm disappointed to find that I have failed, and not necessarily because I've failed to overcome mine or everyone else's parochialism. I still feel that there is a deeper answer beyond a cultural slant. I just haven't been able to isolate it from that factor entirely yet. Work into this problem may continue into the future.